M.D. Ridge Review


A Preview of Rappahannock County
by Scott Williamson

"We're merely protecting
State's rights.
State's rights
Have been attacked."

One would be forgiven for thinking that quote is from a state Attorney General in 2010 challenging the Federal government's actions to halt Arizona's controversial immigration law.

They are actually the first lines of the third song in the triptych that opens Ricky Ian Gordon's and Mark Campbell's "theatrical song cycle" based on the Civil War, Rappahannock County.

I have been in Norfolk all week attending workshop rehearsals that culminated in a preview performance last night [Thursday, July 29th] at Virginia Opera's Harrison Opera House. The program describes the project:

"In conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, a new musical work by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell will have its world premiere performance beginning April 12, 2011, the same day the Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in 1861."

After its premiere, it will travel to the other co-producing centers of the project:

"Rappahannock County will premiere during the 15th Annual Virginia Arts Festival...in the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia, from April 12-17, 2011. These shows will be followed by performances in Richmond at the Modlin Center, September 9-16, and at the Texas Performing Arts Center in Austin, September 18-25."

The piece is more than merely a "theatrical song cycle" and combines elements of musical theater and opera.

"Rappahannock County is a fictional song cycle inspired by diaries, letters, and personal accounts during the period of the Civil War and explores the war's impact, from secession to defeat, on a community of Virginians--black and white, rich and poor, soldiers, nurses, widows, and survivors. The production is a multimedia event, enhanced by projections of Civil War photographs, illustrations, documents, and other moving visuals, and features five principal singers performing more than 30 roles, backed by an ensemble of 15 musicians."

The five singers offered affecting and nuanced portrayals of 14 of the 21 songs in the well-received preview performance (all the more impressive for the scant three days of rehearsals the artists had to assimilate Ricky's new songs).

I have written on my "Musings" blog about the unique joy of commissioning and premiering new works. This week was another reminder why everyone invested in music should participate--at whatever level possible--in such generative processes.

One of the exciting aspects of this process is the tabula rasa starting point for such premieres. The "blank slate" is a universal given before any premiere (for example, if a recording exists of the work it's an mp3 file the composer has generated from his computer). The 5 singers, 2 pianists and the conductor, Rob Fisher, had some time to prepare their scores in advance, but met for the first time just the day before the first workshop with the creative team.

I enjoyed the first read-through of the score as much as the preview performance. Not only are the artists bringing this music literally to life before its creators, the authors are experiencing the live totality of their work for the first time. The electricity of the creative process is palpable, underscoring the fact that music exists to be sung, played, heard and experienced. As the poet Anna Kamienska wrote, "music teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value."

The vibrancy of the process is all the more charged when you have Ricky Ian Gordon bouncing, dancing, and demonstrating along for the singers what he heard in his head while writing his songs. Both Ricky and Mark repeatedly stressed the vignette-like scenes they were creating to tell stories through snapshots of real people. Rather than a grand operatic "Gone with the Wind" narrative, the solos and small ensembles give us miniatures: landscapes, portraits, and character sketches. Ricky mentioned his affinity with Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, and the analogy is apt. Most of the songs are monologues, and the authors deftly alternate between ironic satire and profound emotion (ie: comedy & tragedy) in presenting what has the cumulative effect of being both entertaining and engaging, provocative and moving.

The gifted young director, Kevin Newbury demonstrated how less can be more when it comes to stagecraft. Using a handful of props, a table, and a pair of crates, the "set" changed from pulpit to plantation to hospital ward to embalming table to raft and more.

The "Seccession" triptych opens with a preacher intoning Bible verses claiming slavery to be "Sanctified by God." The aforementioned "States Rights" bookends the twisted "logic" of "A Noble Institution." As happens throughout the work, the music changes as quickly as the perspective. The stentorian tenor, Dan Snyder, shifts from the polemic of "State's Rights" to the vulnerable human voice of the abolitionist, Clement Davis, in "Farewell, Old Dominion." In one of many lines laden with layers of meaning, Dan's character sings

"I don't own slaves,/Won't own slaves,/I'm a teacher--/Reading, ABCs, division."

The final "subject" lingers after the phrase ends, haunting as a specter.

In another arresting transition, the elegaic "Farewell" segues into the song of the young slave boy, Reuben Lark. "Being Small" is a showcase for the gifted young baritone, Charles Jason Freeman, who had the audience in the palm of his hand before he sang a note. Reuben, an illiterate 11 year old, eavesdrops on the owners of a plantation as the "Master" reads the headlines aloud. After repeating those headlines to his "friends and kin" he ends the jaunting song with double-edged wit:

"And one thing I/have learned from this:/'Bout ignorance,/It sure ain't bliss."

The pointed irony and satire drives another pair of songs and is a reminder the Greek root of the wood sarcasm, sarcasmos literally means "to tear the flesh off."

You get the sense that mezzo Margaret Thompson would like to do just that to her "enemies" in "I listen." The song is a colorful character study of a Southern peddler who sells pies to the Union soldiers and then reports to a Rebel spy. This jaunty tune has echoes of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley, and Thompson's portrayal of Violet Fitzsimmons is a cousin of Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd), mischievous, more than a little devious and endearing at the same time.

Mr Freeman has another show-stealing number in "Bound to Be" in which the sarcasm hits so close to home the line between genuine and uncomfortable laughter is obliterated. Campbell's rhythmic verse is matched by Gordon's tuneful music as Joe Harris sings

"When we get to that promised land,/Old Abe himself will shake our hand./And all them folks they gonna cheer,/"Gee we glad to have you Niggrahs here."

His contempt reaches a pitch with

"The Emancipitation Proclamation...Makes it so us folks will never again be put upon./(And it's worth as much as the paper that it's scribbled on.)"

And Campbell's lyrics turn from biting punchline to sobering revelation:

"Ain't no more whips and auction blocks. No chains, no cuffs, no reins, no stocks. But those won't leave the human race, They'll just take on a different face."

"Rappahannock" first appears following another vivid character sketch, "Making Maps." By being particular (to person & place), art performs the unique feat of transcending specificity with universal resonance. The rich-voiced baritone, Mark Walters essays the Cartographer, Jed Hotchkiss in one of the most poignant songs in the score. As elsewhere, Gordon's rippling accompaniments evoke the varied and beautiful Virginia landscape, atop which Walters sings of Jed's rendering of "fine maps" from his God-given skill. "The yielding valleys, the verdant forests,/the crystalline rivers, the wind-sculpted ridges," are transformed before the actor's--and the audience's--eyes as the cartographer realizes his maps are being used "not to orient a man,/But parcel to a plan/For spoiling valleys, for torching forests,..."

Listening to "Making Maps" last night I was struck by a parallel situation in the novel (and film) The English Patient, in which the archeologists realize their life's work in the North African deserts has become a pawn in the machinations of WWII. In my notebook during the first workshop rehearsal this past Monday, I jotted down the words "gorgeous, sweeping, and poignant" after Mark's rendition of "Making Maps."

Those words could be applied to the whole of Rappahannock County, whose current is made more engaging by the satires and asides that enliven and vary the song-cycle's flow.

Thanks to the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the Universities of Richmond and Texas at Austin for pioneering this project. And kudos to Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell for creating an original piece of musical theater that transcends boundaries and engages a central chapter in our history with a resonant and original voice. The cast & production team offered an impressive look at what promises to be an important and vital new work of American music for the stage.

I know I'll be there next April. I hope Rappahannock County will make the rounds around the Commonwealth during these Sesquicentennial commemorations.

Scott Williamson

Mr. Williamson is the Artistic Director of the Virginia Chorale and the newly appointed General & Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke.

April 16, 2011
Harrison Opera House
by M.D. Ridge

Rappahannock CountyRappahannock County, which had its premiere performance April 12, continuing April 16 and 17, was a work a lot of people had very high hopes for. With music composed by Ricky Ian Gordon and lyrics by Mark Campbell, it featured five excellent singers: baritone Mark Walters, mezzo Faith Sherman, tenor Matthew Tuell, baritone Kevin Moreno and soprano Aundi Marie Moore.
Expertly conducted by Rob Fisher and directed by Kevin Newbury, Rappahannock County was jointly commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the Modlin Center for the Arts of the University of Richmond, and Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Wow.

Most of the problems stemmed from Gordon’s decision to develop it as a song cycle —“a series of snapshots that add up to a whole.” But they never did. He said, in the program’s Composer Note, “I began by creating a 12-tone row that I could frame the piece with . . . .” Uh-oh. That’s a dead giveaway that constructing the music was going to be more important than the lyrics or the performers, who were often forced into accenting the wrong syllable. Perhaps Gordon is more comfortable with short-form composition than with long-form; but a full evening demands a gripping dramatic arc, compelling melodies and a satisfying catharsis, none of which were in evidence here.

The story was set in a Virginia county that was not a major Civil War venue, in order to show how the war affected the lives of everyone in the South: landowners, slaves, soldiers, a cartographer, a telegraph operator and so forth. Little connected the characters: each sang his or her piece (they were mostly solos) that stated a point of view, followed by another solo stating another point of view, followed by another solo, etc. There were only three duets; these mostly consisted of one voice singing a line, echoed by another voice. The five singers who comprised the excellent cast sang together only twice; and it was not true ensemble singing. The reprise of Rappahannock was probably the most effective use of the echoing lines technique, providing an onomatopoetic flowing river of sound. Unfortunately it didn’t go anywhere.

Soprano Aundi Marie Moore was a standout as various slaves, a contraband woman grieving the death of her child (“Hallie Ann”), and a free black woman legally marrying. She showed local audiences her chops in a stunning performance as Serena in Virginia Opera’s most recent Porgy and Bess, when she had better music to sing.

Baritone Mark Walters brought a big voice and a commanding presence to his roles: a pro-slavery preacher, a newspaper editor, a forgotten soldier, a deserter, and especially as a cartographer who sees the land’s beauty ravaged by the war (“Making Maps”).

As a society lady, a young wife, and a woman returning to her ruined home, Faith Sherman seemed to be playing the same character each time; but she did more with the pie-selling spy (shades of Sweeney Todd, but without the drama) and the overwhelmed volunteer nurse (“In Their Eyes”). She was frequently singing above her range, which might have been acceptable for a specific effect; but none appeared.

In addition to portraying a nameless slave, a Black Union soldier and a free person of color. Kevin Moreno had the best opportunities as a slave boy small enough to squirrel under the house to hear his master reading the war news aloud (“Being Small”), and a slave looking forward to emancipation (“Bound to Be”). Had the music made the most of the lyrics, these could have been standout showstoppers.

The hardworking Matthew Tuell sang a States Rights politician, a Virginian, and an exiled Virginian; his best opportunities were the touching hopelessness of a dying private from Louisiana (“I Seen Snow”) and a cheerful embalmer (“A Fine Solution”).

The scenery and projection designer, Wendall Harrington, gets full props for intelligent invention and a gift for simplicity. On the stage were two movable split-rail fences, a few chairs, a table that doubled as a cart and other gear — and every bit of it was functional, blending nicely with effective, ghostly still and moving pictures projected on a scrim that separated the orchestra at the rear of the stage.

Having the orchestra in the pit might have been a better plan; the bright stand lights shone through the scrim; the brightly lit conductor’s stand was visibly distracting in every scene. The onstage lighting, by Robert Wierzel, was equally effective, except in a few bits where downspots produced grotesquely shadowed faces. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were simple and versatile, and looked authentic enough to blend in with the projections.

Gordon’s arrangements were remarkably busy and, well, loud, often obscuring crucial lines. Every opportunity for emotional depth was leached away in endless declamation. Every opportunity for sharp humor drizzled away without punch. The mostly unison “April Will Come” finale was another missed opportunity for melody and ensemble singing. Moore’s “All I Ever Known,” in which a slave leaves the home where she was a servant, was the closest thing to a real scene, with an arrangement that supported the song instead of fighting it.

Mark Campbell’s libretto, based on authentic sources stoked by historian Edward L. Ayres, fared better. (Suggestion: keep the libretto; get a different composer.) But there were some weird anachronisms: Sherman’s declaration that things would have been different if women had had the vote was a perfect example why overlaying a 21st-century observation on a 19th-century character doesn’t work. The embalmer chirpily lists the ingredients for his fluid at a cheap “three dollars a jug” — well, that wasn’t cheap then, particularly in a largely barter economy. Would a dying soldier ever have written to his mother of “your hero son”? The slave characters sing, “ “God, don’t trouble the waters,” which is reprised at the finale — but even slaves would have known that God troubling the waters of the pool at Bethesda was a good thing.

To call Rappahannock County a theatre piece overstates the case. It had a lot going for it: the singers were excellent; the musical and stage direction were bang-on professional; the libretto had tremendous possibilities that were never realized; the seventeen Virginia Symphony players acquitted themselves beautifully. But the music really needed to be more than a collection of snapshots, however well mounted.

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